"Is This a Hand or a Puppet?": Review by Maša Jazbec

17 03 2021

"Unboxed". Photo: Andre Wirsig

Author: Maša Jazbec

The MANIPULATE Digital Festival ran from 29 January to 7 February 2021. In the light of the year-long, still ongoing Covid-19 situation worldwide, the Scotland-based festival had decided to adjust its programme to show the productions that had been modified for online delivery, and those originally created for the digital environment and virtual presentation. In addition to puppet shows (not in a strictly traditional sense), the line-up focused on video animation, object theatre, and live shadow theatre. Animation played very different roles in the pieces, video animations serving as a backdrop for puppets or an environment for puppets to be animated in, and digital animation techniques altering the profiles of the creators and engaging with the realm of film to create hybrid (animated) forms, while video was given a more prominent place in what is essentially a performing art.
As the audience saw the productions online, each spectator by themselves, their experience was limited to the recordings. Available to be watched multiple times, many of the works were pre-recorded rather than performed live during the festival. The fact that this was an online programme took away some of the “here and now” atmosphere of a festival which the audience can experience in a shared space and time.
On Day 1, the programme featured an online production of Ariel Doron’s Unboxed. The organisers could hardly have found a more fitting work for the festival than this Israeli author’s piece in which one of the key notions is the word ‘manipulate’ (also the name of the festival). In Unboxed, the artist examines his competence as a puppeteer by showing the audience his technical skills of manipulating and animating the puppet, the role played by his own bare hand. By overtly and compellingly playing with the spectator’s perception of the puppet/his hand, Doron manages to extend the subject of manipulation to new meanings.
Unboxed is an original project based on Boxed, a solo piece that had its European premiere at the World Puppet Festival in Charleville-Mézières in the autumn of 2019. In the minimalistic “single-handed” work (that has no lighting design or music), its author Ariel Doron explores clowning elements, interpretations of puppetry, and the perception of the theatre of animated forms, wearing a bathrobe and slides, and equipped with a shoebox, a pair of scissors and a tape. In 30 minutes, he takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster and into a chilling fantasy of a lonely man trying to get in touch with himself and the world by dividing, dissecting the image of a man, on the one hand, and the image of a hand as a separate entity, on the other. The author, known for his unique, grotesque sense of humour (equally prominent in his second work Plastic Heroes[1]), collaborated on Boxed with artists such as Tobias Tönjes (dramaturgy), and Shahar Marom, Florian Feisel, and Roni Nelken Mosensin (consultation).
Unboxed is a collaboration of the same group of artists. Adapted for the two-dimensional digital space, the production evokes an atmosphere fit for 2020 (the year that shocked the world with the Covid-19 pandemic, and challenged its population with stringent containment measures, altering day-to-day communication, interactions, and the mode of being in this world for many people). The performance unfolds in a clinical white space that turns out to be staged and set up inside a room in a flat. Although far from where the performance takes place, the audience watches the artist locked (or appearing to be) in his white box, sitting at a white table with a cardboard box in front of him. In the (false) safety of the home(ly) environment, the artist wears a typical “lockdown outfit” (tracksuit).
What is surprising and inspiring about Unboxed, and had previously been clearly indicated in Boxed, is how Doron manages, using a handful of props (a camera, table, chair, cardboard box, tape, pair of scissors, bottle of ketchup, plastic hand), to create an entire imaginary world, a universe that is mainly about adding and layering concepts and sets of meaning. Doron likes to playfully alternate between affirming and negating the object of interpretation (is what we see a hand or a puppet?), between the animate and the inanimate (is what he is showing animate or inanimate?), thereby constantly eliciting associations and raising questions with the audience, switching between the code of the manipulated party and the code of the manipulator, while subtly addressing the current state of society, consumer habits, the individual’s perception of themselves, narcissism, and one’s perception of one’s own body.
Doron’s choice is a fluid code. His decision is to challenge the audience with a bipolar representation of the body, where the hand is sometimes an animated object for the artist to feel excited about, observe, and explore as something unknown, something not his own; and at other times something he takes out of the box to show beyond doubt that he is the one animating it. The same bipolar approach can be seen in relation to the animate or organic, and plastic or inorganic. His bare animate hand is sometimes just this – a hand as part of the body that uses it, while at other times it serves to make a plastic prop – a hand made of plastic – appear animate. But not only that: at some point towards the end when a multitude of hands, plastic or animate, go from caressing Doron’s face to what is almost forceful groping of all his facial creases, they point to, or merely hint at, the artist’s perception of his own body and the presence of touch.
The production reveals Doron’s method (previously employed in the above-mentioned Plastic Heroes) of using humour and seemingly innocent, even insignificant play to emerge as a socially-engaged artist who takes trivial social situations (waiting for a package to arrive, being excited about a new purchase and seeing its poor instructions for use – who could not relate?) and uses them to reflect on modern consumer society. Although Doron refrains from commenting on society, he does indicate his reservations. A society where the expectation and excitement at a package delivery replace the expectation and excitement at a friend’s visit, is a society that exerts pressure towards individualisation, and above all to a different understanding of how relationships develop.
One of the very significant aspects of Unboxed is the relation between the word and the movement. Words (and words alone, without music) are there for the artist to connect with his undefined audience, to build a communication space. The artist engages with the audience through various emotional states he finds himself in or chooses to express (the emotions building towards a crescendo from peacefulness, relaxation, happiness, the joy of expectation, excitement, to panic, fear, dread, or even despair). By means of a loud expression of emotions, he escalates the audience’s experience in order to highlight the contrast with the non-verbal communication taken over by the hand. The amplified sounds he makes when expressing emotions seem to ascribe a more significant value and role to the hand. In addition, the sounds help the audience adopt a grotesque attitude towards the hand, its conduct going from amusing adorability to the alarming aggression seen at the end.   
More should be said about the layering of meanings. One moment the audience is encouraged to accept the notion of a hand with a life of its own, the next they see the notion being deconstructed and the hand re-affirmed as part of the artist’s body. This is a cunning twist from Doron: the audience knows that the artist perceives and represents his left hand as a puppet by pushing it through a hole in the box. When the hand is not there, it does not act as a puppet. The artist does not hide the fact that the box has a hole in it, and here is the twist. The artist clearly shows where manipulation lies: the hole is the portal that transforms the hand into a hand puppet, but the same hole acquires another meaning by becoming a passage, a way out for the hand puppet to escape and turn into a puppet hand. Hence multiple meanings are attached to this part of the artist’s body.
The artist associates the sets of meaning referring to the hand with various kinds of states and relationships: a loving relationship (excitement at the new purchase, surprise), a frightening relationship (the fear of the hand becoming a separate entity), adrenalin (the search for the runaway hand), distrust or even horror (the independent, autonomous plastic hand violating the artist’s private space and intimacy in the close-up scene of face touching), and fascination. It is with fascination as a feeling of being in awe and yet alarmingly overwhelmed, a sensation aroused by ignorance of what is emerging before one’s eyes, that Unboxed ends, without an unambiguous finale. Indeed, how could it have one if the piece as a whole is a sequence of the multiple meanings of its parts? Ending with fascination as a sense of being overwhelmed, the piece raises several questions: Who or what overwhelmed whom? Which hand replaced the other? Which box was it where everything started?
As in his previous works, Doron avoids giving definite answers, playing instead with the construction and deconstruction of images, notions, and perceptions. Rather than acting as the final authority, he offers this role to the spectator simply by presenting a box, a cardboard box that will release a myriad of interpretations. With their 30-minute package delivery, the sender Ariel Doron and his team of collaborators promise to fascinate many addressees (spectators).

[1] Plastic Heroes is an object theatre show featuring plastic soldier figures, the popular Barbie dolls, and a plush tiger toy. With seemingly innocent (child’s) play, Ariel Doron manages to create a collage of war images, situations, military missions, and the lives of soldiers and their families. The humour he brings to the piece through mock naivety, irony, and bitter derision, enables him to bring the audience face to face with their own perception of military discipline and the point(lessness) of real-life political battles and squabbles.

This publication is written in the context of the project "European Contemporary Puppetry Critical Platform"